Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Districts drive-thru Part III

Districts drive-thru Part III
Kumbakonam-Neyveli highway and dog farms
A farm for raising Doberman pets in agricultural farmland is as incongruous as an alphonso grove in the Sahara. But there it is. Bang on the road from Kumbakonam as you head towards Neyveli. And a couple of fish farms in the same area tell you that changes are sweeping in the food belt of Tamil Nadu.
Of course, when u drive towards Panrutti you get a glimpse of native produce, unlike in the Thanjavur highway where in the past your car would thresh over grains spread all over the road. From Panrutti you see loads and loads of jack fruits piled anyhow on the sidewalks. A bevy of men and women rushing back and forth. Heavier vehicular traffic as well. Somewhere along the route, a huge hoarding of Sachin clicks into your vision—someone has taken the trouble to display IPL scores in Tamil, exhaustively detailed with data on every round of the tournament.
Posters of ‘Angadi theru’ and ‘Paiyya’ grin at you here and there. But for the most part, the villages are asleep.
Emerging out of the Thanjavur-Kumbakonam highway—which is really only two lanes, and in some places tough going, specially over the bridges—is refreshing. You leave behind brown earth, scraggy ponds where a lily or two is struggling to survive. No bird songs in the air. No summer bees humming the siesta hour. And somehow you get the feeling that this is not a restful summer.
But from Panrutti its a different picture, and when you hit NLC in Neyveli, little heaps of garbage piled on either side of the sprawling industry startles you. Although the complex looks green and well maintained on the outside, you cannot help but compare it with the exterior of BHEL factory in Thiruverambur in Trichy. Even traffic is ore organised there.
But to get back to Neyveli: Clearly, plastic consumption is on the higher side. Red cashew fruits, the heart beat of export from this pocket beckon you, sitting atop the jack fruit pile. But ask them if it has been a good harvest, and you will get a woeful answer.
But a mood changer happens the minute you enter Pondy. The first pavement display is one of wine shop . Unlike other districts, where ‘meals ready’ boards would welcome you from the pavement. A sense of orderliness pervades you as well, reiterating the fact that Pondy is one of the few well designed towns in southern history. There is far less encroachment of pavement and road space here compared to the arterial roads in most districts.
I realise I have merely scratched the surface, in driving through a couple of districts, but even there the decadal changes are too overwhelming. I head to the Promenade, the fine restaurant run by Hidesign. I take the beach road and just when I should take a left turn, guess what I run up against? Civil works under way, so the road is closed. I make a determined detour and land up in Promenade. The lovely basket cane chairs outside beckon me, where I can hear and see the sea and smell the salty air. But the bearers politely tell me I will be uncomfortable. With a sigh I settle in the leather straight backed chairs inside.
A French woman, clad in a summery yellow chiffon sari and a crocheted had gives me a huge smile, while she tells the bearer that what she wanted was tea, not coffee. I smile, order an iced tea and raise a toast to my daughter who made me take the trip—part pilgrimage, part family function and part funereal – while she herself is in the midst of her semester exams.
The taste of fresh herbs tell you that they have a chef who knows how to make your taste buds jump to life. Hours pass by and I recall passages from Hemmingway and Steinbeck. I wish I could do a Travels with Charley. The beaches come alive, with families arriving, poor, rich et al. The sands do not discriminate.
I get on to the ECR. Speeding vehicles, people on cell phones while driving, two-wheelers making unscheduled U-turns are all pointers that I am heading home. It is nearing sun down and the sky is a like the teasing veil of a Rebecca. Grey, orange, with a tinge of blue. I look at huge salt pans on my left, while the backwaters to my right play hide and seek with me. Yes, the private farms on this stretch are flourishing to such an extent that the greenery on this stretch rivals anything that I had driven through when I set out. And I wonder why our kitchen vegetables cannot come from here, instead of elsewhere, stretching our kitchen budgets.
The toll gate mercifully is a one stop shop, for the entire stretch, unlike the upward journey where drivers have to navigate over badly engineered speed breakers, in the nearly half a dozen toll plazas. Except Villupuram where there is a nice gradient.
I turn into Thiruvanmiyur and the holiday is over. Call taxis whose drivers never seem to take their thumbs off the horn, darting pedestrians, beggars at traffic intersections, signals that do not work, and the smell of hot, oily bhajjis from road side shops. The light summer breeze that cools the air, the smiling faces as front doors open.
I am home.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Districts drive-thru Part II

Districts drive-thru Part II
Green fields, snaky Cauvery and centuries-old canals—these are the things you saw, not in Kalki or Sujatha’s books, but for real, when you drove from Trichy to Thnajavur . But in 2010, the pawn broker shops on the Thanjavur highway and the ‘water service’ signages tell a stark truth.
In Trichy you see visible signs of education—hurray to the hoary tradition of St Joseph’s and many other institutions—with boys and girls rushing to classes with grey sling bags and back packs stating their purpose, right till NIT, (REC in the past), the point of Trichy-Thanjavur highway and beyond. Like elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, the NIT flyover under construction tells you that it hopes for industrial/commercial improvement..but you cannot miss the numerous universities –like PRIST—dotting the landscape even as a huge amount of flyover work is underway .
It is Thanjavur route which brings a lump to your throat. Maybe the Mukkombu—Karur route would have made me happy.. and Lalapet, the tiny, green village which makes you want to retire and shift there with your books and modem. Banana fields, sugarcane and tapioca farms would have greeted me. But I chose the NH 67. To Thanjavur.
Were the pawn broker shops always so prominent? My memory says no. And although the brown fields are there, with just a few cows grazing, huge sign boards saying ‘plots for sale’ jerk you out of your nostalgia. So, they have come here too.
There are pockets of water, and a few green fields where sugarcanes are in their puberty. As I listen to the ‘Ballelaka’ song on the stereo, I see only one field where a handful of women are involved in ‘nathu nadudal’. Very few of the villagers are loitering about, and I did not have to break for a single kid or dog dashing across the street. Except some 25 km from Thanjavur, I see an excited group of villagers crowding over a small bridge. My journalist’s instincts kick in. “Either they have sighted a crocodile,(common along the Cauvery, or its a cinema shooting". Bingo. It is a movie crew and Prabhu is a couple of kilometres away, shooting in the fields—the only field with ankle length water that I had seen since early morning. I remind myself I am on holiday, and handcuff myself from sms-ing a story list to office.
With the Brahadeeswarar temple peeping through the few coconut fronds, I move on. And watch with a heavy heart as women sell cucumbers and dosakai on the streets.. surely, not the native produce that Thanjavur is famous for. Half a dozen automatic harvesters stand grouped together here and there.. eying each other like potential interviewees, muttering, ‘too many of us, too few jobs’. I overtake an occasional tractor and come upon women waving a plastic packet on the highway as vehicles rush past. They are selling strung jasmines, for peanuts... somewhere at the fag end of Kumbaskonam-- didnt know jasmine grew there..
Kumbakonam now... and the road side shops are filled with bottled water—of local make—while every few kms water service signages pop up. Nungu, the palm fruit is seen in plenty and the discarded shells look like skulls. And yes, the sign of environmental degradation is there on the road—mounds of plastic packets and discarded plastic bottles. A few banana plants stand with their dried fronds hanging down, as if in shame. And I pondered upon how rulers like Karikalan dammed the waters of the many tributaries of the Cauvery and ensured the area remained a green bowl, even on its outer fringes.
I move towards Kumbakonam, hometown of Ramanujam the great mathematical genius, and glass facade shops and hoarding of jewelery shops are the things that hit you. And for some reason, actor Prabhu—not Radhika or a slinky model—is endorsing jewels. Well, well. I down a Kumbakonam degree coffee, assure myself that Trichy makes the best coffee in the state, and head towards Pondy via Neyveli.

Tomorrow: Neyveli-Pondy- ECR-home

Monday, May 10, 2010

Districts' drive-thru

Districts’ drive-thru --Part I
Chennai to Trichy, via Chingelpet, Villupuram
If you have been wanting to go for a spin in your Ferrari, then take the NH 45 to Trichy from Chennai. Three years ago, the roads were a mess of works, but now its a dream run. From the minute you enter the S-bridge after Tambaram, it takes you less than 5 hours via Chingelpet and Villupuram to reach Trichy.
It needn’t be a Ferrari though. Any car which can average a steady 75km per hour would do. The roads are smooth, and the Highways is following through with plenty of drive safe measures. Like:
Huge digital banners tell you ‘never travel in contra flow direction’ , a crucial awareness drive on the highways where vehicles are prone to drive towards on your lane, to avoid a longer drive that would put them on the right track with a simple U-turn. Smart, orange coloured emergency phones, mounted on sleek pillars (taking minimum road space), and solar powered as well, are other new additions. Lights at many traffic intersections are solar powered as well, and until you arrive at the Coleroon bridge, you have nothing to crib about.
It is here that disappointment starts. For decades, as you crested the bridge, you could see the corpulently spread-out Rockfort, the slender steeple of St Joseph’s and the girthy gopuram that is Srirangam, in one quick glance,even as you looked down to get your first glimpse of the Cauvery. But the walls of the bridge have been raised in such a way that your view of the river on the right is blocked, while the first sighting of the three landmarks are just for a fraction of a second. The walls shut out the view. You do not get to see them as drive down this bridge, or the Cauvery bridge as the 2nd one is known or the third one, over Srirangam , before you can touch Trichy.
Traffic suddenly becomes two way as you near Trichy, confusing you entirely, and you miss the exit road to the town entirely, and end up driving towards Thanjavur Road. A few signages would serve the purpose admirably, or Trichy needs the services of people like Mythili Sriram, who along with a group of friends had made the trip to the Srirangam temple vehicle-friendly, with signages in the narrow streets, guiding devotees.
Trichy itself has become very crowded and it is easy to get lost, if you are retuning after three years. One familiar landmark missing is the huge periyar arch, that used to lead to iyer thottam and police quarters. The steel-bodied public transport buses continue to park bang in the middle of the road, while traffic comes to a stand still be it before Chattiram bus stand or in Thillai Nagar.
But all that will be forgotten once you enter Srirangam during the Chittirai festival , currently underway. On May 9th, days ahead of the ‘ther’, (chariot) , it was the ‘padi’ ceremony. The moolavar (processional deity of Ranganatha)is brought to the courtyard outside the Thayar (Godeess) sannidhi. From 5 pm, devotees began filling up the halls of the huge temple. Vendors selling string hopper machines made of iron, dosa skillets and tiny stone pestles that can fit on the table top of a 8x5 kitchen comfortably had a roaring time, as bargains were struck. Quite a few made a bee-line to the centre of the entry hall where temple officials were auctioning the silk sarees , dhotis and angavastra which had once adorned the deities.
Cell phones were busy with many touching base with friends and relatives while waiting everywhere. The early birds preferred to queue up in the narrow aisles leading to the sanctum sanctotum, and with electric fans in full flow, it was not a bad idea at all. Kids ran around fetching bananas for the temple elephant while senior citizens gravitated towards the ‘prasadam’ ( food) stalls. A young couple, unmindful of the world passing around them, sat facing each other, knees touching and whispering a million of god-knows what. That they were left alone is a reflection that possibly that this is not the first couple cosying up on those sands.
A smartly dressed civic worker, picking up discarded paper and strands of faded flowers from the sand was a new, pleasanter sight. In fact, dust bins were being put to use by the crowds sensibly, though one cannot say the same for the urinals. Many kids seemed to mistake the wash area for the other, and with parents too busy with the atmosphere, temple staff kept running a hose, and alternately burning incense.
By 7, Rnaganatha sauntered out, and Ranganayaki, the goddess who never steps beyond her ‘vasasal’ greeted him from her threshold. The ritual of camphor-lighting over, Ranganatha’s bearers bellowed out a couple of indistinct lines , and as if on cue, her bearers responded in kind..
Then began the ceremony of showering rice grain from huge padis ( a measure) .. crowds surged, foots were stamped, elbows crushed and necks craned to get a glimpse of the falling grains in the thayar sannidhi. “One sight is enough to wash away your sins,” said a mami, urging me to atone. Was it a sin I wondered, that I was more a writer and less an obedient devotee who believed that all my sins could be washed away with that one sight.
And as I exited the temple, it was the writer in me which spotted the huge advertisement for ‘Sura’ hanging just outside the temple wall. And if Vijay comes, can Ajith be far away I wondered? Sure enough, a huge poster of ‘thala’ as Ajith is known, had been put up on the opposite wall. Ah, we poor mortals I thought, but my musings on star wars were cut short by the sound of a resounding slap.
That was a traffic cop, hitting a couple of two wheeler riders on the road. He had suddenly decided to close the road exiting Srirangam (from the temple you normally take a left). Instead, vehicles had to get into Srirangam town to hit the road to Trichy. The two boys on the bike, laden with a TV carton did not stop in time. The cop put out a hand, the pillion rider lost his slipper and his footing, and the cop, his cool.
I tried to find my way to Amamandapam in the unfamiliar lanes, and every time I rolled down the car window, asking for directions, Srirangamites said I was in the wrong direction, and should have turned left after exiting the temple.. I felt as though I was in a Jankaraj-Vadivelu movie.
Tomroow—Trcihy-Thanjavur NH 45 C

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Film perspective etc etc

A melon, when it should have been tiramisu

Was there ever a movie whose first half easily merited three-and-a half- stars (from the toughest) of critics, possibly four stars from others than ‘Aayirathil Oruvan’, only to lose a couple of them in the second half? When the basic premise, that you take a story forward to some logical conclusion, is missing, what can you do but throw up your hands in bitter frustration? It is akin to ordering a tiramisu, but ending up with quartered water melons and musk melons!
As a reviewer, I get two kinds of responses. One, where people tell me they choose to go at once or postpone watching a movie, based on my review, only because my taste appears to gel with theirs. These include lawyers, those in the film industry and ordinary people. The other type occasionally marks its presence with a hate call. But the one thing I am often asked is why I am not lavish in praising the big stars or directors.
It’s like Harbhajan scoring 70 runs as a one off thing, and Sachin’s score, be it 10 or 100 runs. Which is discussed thread bare, each time? Likewise Kamal, Haasan, Suriya, Gautham Menon, Shankar or Selvaraghavan. TThey are the Sachin Tendulkars of Kollywood. And when they make ordinary mistakes, or offer a melon instead of tiramisu, no matter how sweet or rare the melon, it is not a tiramisu.
A film has to have a perspective. Look up the Oxford dictionary and it will tell you: ‘ perspective: a mental view of the relative importance of things.’ And this perspective is what I was seeking in AO. After winding up the audience to full key on the important things, he treats us to a gladiator thingy, with not very good CG. The depth and complexity in Anitha’s characterisation is awesome, and I kept awaiting the great moment —when the Chola prince Parthiban realises her treachery—expecting clash of wills, personalities or even action., Such a great scene, with so much potential. But Anitha spits on the ground and walks off.
Now look at the perspective on Muthu. In the first half (leave aside his quick repartees and charming take on a sassy coolie, you expect nothing less from an actor who scored a ton (in acting) on his debut film, ‘Paruthiveeran’), he is prescient enough to know that you should not trust Anitha. Even without the tiger tattooed on his back, you know he has native intelligence to ferret out things. But Selva shackles him up in chains and throws him in a dungeon, and diverts us with the gladiator show, and delves on the mood in the camp prior to the departure.. Where is the seed for the sequel? Why focus so much on a Chola prince (prince only, because the child is never crowned) when you are going to kill him? Once released from the prison, the macho Muthu hardly turns his mind to the problem at hand. If he were a royal Chola protector in earlier times, shouldn’t his senses be working overtime? Are we supposed to believe that Anitha’s agenda was only to kill Parthiban, and not worry about the child and heir who is in plain sight all the time?
So many questions, and hopefully we will have the answers in the sequel, but buddy, we should have had that tiramisu this time itself.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Highway lines

Looking out of the window...

Forget taking a flight or rushing for tatkal to open. Today, the NH is so good, that you can reach Bangalore from Chennai, at six hours flat. And I am talking of point to point, with a breakfast halt and a couple of leg-stretch breaks.

Any decent car—doesn’t have to be a Passat, which is my favourite— keeps chugging along nicely and averaging 100 throughout is almost possible. Almost, because of two things: one, heavy vehicles which take up parallel lines, and appear like a newly wedded couple holding hands. No amount of honking or dipping your beam works.

The other speed breaker are the dogs and cats, though it is predominantly the former which get hit by vehicles travelling at 120 or more. I have never seen a rabbit scoot in urban surroundings, but the speed at which these dogs run into a vehicle is a death wish that probably only a morphine dependent cancer patient may possess.

Of course in certain stretches on the Hosur road, you have the yellow railings which make it impossible for dogs to dart from east to west or vice versa, but the number of stiff little bodies on the roads make you wince. While the maintenance crew is busy raking the dead leaves and watering the plants – let me tell you I appreciate that- but no one gives the dead a second look... and they lie there for days at an end I am told... Will the highways department allow for some decent burial I wonder?

The other thing that the NH guys have to look into, is the change-over time at the toll gates. A friend told me that at 4 pm, when there is a shift change , there is a massive waste of time, since handing over is manual. There was a time when the Indian Railway booking counters faced similar problems, but then they came up with a workable solution. Windows are closed by relay, so that people need not wait forever. Hope something similar is worked out . And be prepared for one more eyebrow- wrinkler moment—the men at the toll gates badger you for change, so rudely that you would want to come back and reward your MTC conductors with a medal.

And yes, I am going to leave you with one more spoiler... entering Bangalore used to fill your entire body with a dose of freshness.. it used to be such a perk –up... but now, all you see are glass facades and as you drive under the elevated corridor that is coming up you realise that very soon every city may wear the same look.

What a pity... needless to say, we headed to the nearest pub...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

By the book

Bonus points something...

Hirani and Chetan Bhagat are not the first to fall out after famously setting of on the book-to-movie tour. R K Narayan and the Anands were not exactly posing for photographs after the movie ‘Guide’ came out. RKN’s daughter, who attended my wedding said (as she knew of it) that it all happened in a ‘whoosh’ moment. Somebody came home in a swank car, her dad, the eternal gentleman, sort of played the traditional host that people down south are famed for.

Offering filter coffee, someone rushing in to straighten that rose/teak wood chair with a spotless towel, and loads of what we would call a goofy grin. Papers signed in a flourish, since both parties are a tad shy and a little wary of the other’s fame/stature. Mutual displeasure did not spew out as it does today, when anything to do with celebrities –authors and filmi guys alike—is snapped up by readers/viewers.

The other, not-so-subtle change, is the goofy part. Today, most producers and writers are bold, not bashful. If promos of films take the traditional media route, take a look at all the books and articles which do a regular road show on networking sites. Short of hustling you to go and ‘grab a copy now or else..’, authors today are experts in promoting themselves/their works. Movie fans are not far behind, and threads on even previews of Tamil films in far off Qatar hog space. Mainstream reviews are also commented upon, be they of films or books. Sometimes ugly, often it’s nothing short of self justification. And the means fetch the desired result: eyeballs! It’s not a sin anymore to be interested in gossip, I am told.

It gets all the more interesting, especially since no one seems to play by the book anymore. Who can judge who is partly or paltry correct?

What such episodes tell us, however, is that there is a dearth of intellectual property rights lawyers, who can help you with the fine print, both ways. By putting them in, and also by decoding them for you.


Two Wednesdays

When idols fall...

Two Kannada idols, Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan both died on a Wednesday, and as it happens I was in Bangalore on both the occasions, holidaying. Rajkumar had died in the summer (April) of 2006, while Vishnu passed away on December 30. Days when the city hurt while fans grieved violently , with banners, stones and glass shards in hand. There was no guarantee that you would escape the eyes of fans which seemed to carry out a sortie. ...

Death has a way of announcing itself to you, even if you have made a conscious decision to switch off and unwind. I was not tuned to the radio, and television was a complete no-no during vacations for me (news updates are a quick glance while checking my in-box), but a day before New Year’s Eve, I got the creepy feeling all over again. I cannot recall the exact face or phrase when I was informed that Rajkumar had died— but it was at a traffic signal as I was entering the garden city. Some intuitive urge made me roll down a window and ask, ‘What’s up?’ A complete stranger, took off his helmet and told me to ‘watch it. Rajkumar has died. Things can get ugly.’ Suddenly the roads became a frenzy of people and vehicles all rushing around, and then a deafening silence.. like ants which vanish when you disturb them. Then it began. The noise of a stone hitting a iron shutter, and then a glass facade, before an eerie scream which was a half way sob rang out.

The roads emptied fast, but I was stuck.. I had to go through Gandhi market . Luckily Pushparaj (the driver of the car) knew the back alleys of the city and the green Mitsubishi ( that I had borrowed from a friend) some times rested on the pavement before warily stepping around a corner. Racing from the City to the other end of the city at Domlur Layout promised safety—comparative at least. But no. There was glass everywhere on the road, cars were pelted, stomped upon and bashed up with anything that came to was a long evening, and a longer summer night for visitors and residents alike....

The winter death of Vishnuvardhan evoked similar mourning, the only difference being it was mercifully confined to a few localities. And by Thursday, dignity was at the wake. The fact that many were offices were functioning with skeletal staff (due to the year end holiday plans of many) also helped to keep damage to lower levels...and I drove back two days later..mulling over two other funerals that fans had pushed me into.. of Annadurai, when as a nine year old, I was atop the terrace of EVK’s house, but had to leave when grief turned violent, and again to that December when MGR died... the surreal picture of all the roads strewn with flowers, glass pieces, broken slippers, pieces of torn fabric and blotches of blood and water that seemed to be tears...

Death of course continued to be proud, and waited like a hand maiden until the fans’ grief played itself out... and a new year began.

Will future leaders leave a loving, last wish, seeking restraint? However, doubt if that would work, given how emotional death is, for all of us....